Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Intentional Neighborhood

Humans are clan creatures. We evolved on the plains of Africa in small, genetically-related groups. Like a bee without its hive, an isolated human was a dead human. Without the support of its fellow clan members, an isolated human would either starve to death, or be eaten by predators. Due to this long, relentless evolutionary process, our need for a group to belong to is literally embedded into our DNA.

Whenever conditions were propitious, clans could grow until they would split off and form new clans. Related groups of clans, who spoke the same language and shared the same customs, were called tribes. Some tribes became very large, but the basic social unit remained the clan – a closely-related group of individuals of all ages, from infants to the elderly.

It was the clan, not the family, that was the primary social unit – grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins... all the possible permutations of kinship. There was no undue emphasis on “my” family. Sure, everybody knew who their parents were, who their siblings were, and what their kinship was with every individual in the clan, but their clan identity reigned supreme.

In America, clans are still a powerful component within the overall culture, especially among “ethnics” -- people who still retain some aspects of their pre-immigration cultures. In the Southwest, this group is the Latinos, people of Mexican origin. Within Latino culture, the clan remains a powerful presence. Members of a Latino clan need never be alone unless they want to be. (When I was in high school, I was jealous because the Latino kids were never alone, and I always seemed to be.) Rites of passage – birth, death, marriage, any and all graduations – are shared by the entire clan. Emergencies are shared. Good times are shared, like the men watching football on TV together, or the women going goo-goo over a new baby. When a Latino name is called at a high school or college graduation, the entire clan erupts in a cacophony of cheers and whistles. For such people, “hunger for community” is an alien concept.

Many white people, who very often grew up in the isolated nuclear families so typical of post-WW II America, have unmet social needs that they experience as “hunger for community.” Churches, for those capable of accepting the ideology, can be a powerful and effective community substitute. Or service organizations, such as Rotary or Kiwanis. Or clubs of all sorts. Or the workplace, in some cases. The more intellectually-inclined have magazines and websites devoted to Community with a capital “C”. It’s hard to regain the clan identity we’ve lost, but we can sure scratch the itch real good.

For people who didn’t grow up within an effective clan, the “search for community” became, in many cases, a powerful urge. Particularly in the 60s and 70s, thousands of intentional communities were formed; most of them didn’t last long. People who had grown up in isolated nuclear families, it turned out, lacked the social skills and motivation necessary to successfully live within a group, particularly when we consider that the group members had no kinship or shared history.

A more promising format is the “intentional neighborhood,” in which the participants live in their individual homes, but can interact as the whim of the moment dictates. It offers the right balance between closeness and independence. As Goldilocks says, “Not too close and not too far; I like you just the way you are.” There are no onerous obligations, yet people can conveniently interact whenever they want to. This is already true in every large city, which is divided into “scenes” – the arts scene, the punk scene, the gay scene, the peace and justice scene, the mountain biker scene, on and on and on. Often, these people tend to live in the same part of town, in which case there’s the whole intentional neighborhood concept actualized right there.

The gist of the intentional neighborhood concept is that people who share some commonality – ideology, interests, mindset, worldview, personal chemistry – live close enough together that, ideally, they can easily walk to each others’ homes to interact. It would be greatly preferred if people didn’t have to burn gasoline in order to have a social life. Since “dropping in” would be so convenient, such a neighborhood would be a rich melange of political talk, shared gardening, car repair, DVD-watching, potlucks, music, sex... whatever humans are capable of.

An excellent venue for an intentional neighborhood would be a small town, surrounded by a productive agricultural hinterland, preferably with a lot of Amish and other “simple folk” living in the vicinity. (These people will be valuable neighbors when times get tough.) A small town would presumably have most of the conveniences of civilization, yet would be small enough to retain the human scale. But there’s one major problem to this idyllic scenario – the inhabitants of such a small town are likely to be, for the most part, rather dull company. Sure, it’s always possible to have a good conversation about the weather, or the crops, or how the fishing is, but if you want to talk about ideas, or indulge in nuance like irony or sly humor, you will likely be disappointed. Intelligent people left the countryside for the cities not only in search of jobs, but in search of other bright spirits to shine with. This exodus, which has been going on for more than a century, has left the countryside even more impoverished than it originally was.

Before moving into a new area, it would be advisable to check the voting records. Every state has a website showing how each county voted. A close check of the records would reveal if any counties have an unusually high Democratic vote within a Republican area. Such a county might contain a small town with a college in it, for example. Most people of a liberal persuasion would want to locate in an area that voted mostly Democratic. There are vast parts of the country that voted for McCain with a percentage of 80% or more. Personally, I consider these areas cultural wastelands – unsuitable for anything more than a short visit. In fact, any kind of McCain majority whatsoever is unacceptable by my standard.

An intriguing example of a sustainability-oriented intentional neighborhood is the little town of Dixon, NM, located on the Embudo River (which is actually a large creek) about 20 miles south of Taos. Probably the most famous resident of Dixon is Stanley Crawford, who has written several books, including Mayordormo and A Garlic Testament. The food co-op movement in this country has been slowly dying (which means, globalism has been winning up till now), but Dixonites have actually organized their own food co-op within the past several years. (Just Google “Dixon food co-op” for their website, which includes back issues of their newsletter – a fascinating glimpse into what they’re doing.) They have also organized a very nice little community library, and – get this – a community radio station! Laura and I visited Dixon a couple of years ago and were favorably impressed. Several factors are working in the Dixonites’ favor: They are isolated enough to have their own sense of identity, yet close enough to Taos to partake of whatever scenes Taos has to offer. Further, this is the bluest area of New Mexico, rivaling the San Francisco area in that regard. Dixon is located in Rio Arriba County which voted 75% Obama; Taos County voted 82% Obama. If I was younger, wasn’t tied down, had a lot of money, and wanted to remain in New Mexico, I would definitely give Dixon a serious look.

The little town of Crestone, CO is also intriguing, but it’s very isolated, and has a harsh climate, being located at 8000 feet. In terms of the number of alternative buildings per capita, it ranks right up there. Several spiritual centers are located there – Zen, Tibetan Buddhist, a Hindu temple, a Carmelite monastery, about a dozen in all. It doesn’t have community radio, but has its own weekly newspaper. But it has a major disadvantage: it’s too small and isolated to offer the possibility of making a living there – you either need your own money, or you’ll be commuting an hour each way to either Alamosa or Salida.

Once gasoline shortages start happening, the residents of Crestone will be in for a big surprise, along with all the people who bought cheap land out in the middle of nowhere to build their “dream homestead.” People will find that true self-sufficiency is nearly impossible. Once the dollar loses its value, we will find that we need groups to survive. When that happens, intentional neighborhood will become a necessity, not just a cute concept. The problem is, most people are still locked into the status-quo mindset of the dying economy. NOW is the time to get one’s act together, but people are still hunkered down, waiting for all this to blow over. Prediction: it will get much worse. By the time the new circumstances finally convince people that maybe a new mindset and new behavior patterns would be expedient, it will be much more difficult to create the necessary infrastructure for a decent life. Today, if you need tools, or building materials, or whatever you think might be useful, you just mosey on down to the local Mega Mart, lay your money down, and you’re on your way. In the future, not so much.

Like I say, these blog posts, except for my Grassroots Press articles, are rough drafts. I might very well have more to say about intentional neighborhood at some future date, but for now, my time window has expired.

Before I go, here are two more observations:

To me, it’s utterly fascinating to see how many older Baby Boomers – age 50 and up – are living alone. This phenomenon results from the self-actualization trend that began in the 1950s, jumped to a new quantum level during the 60s, and has continued unabated ever since. Self-actualization is in many cases incompatible with compromise. Since a stable relationship demands compromise, a certain demographic within the Baby Boomer generation found themselves, after they had accumulated enough life experience, with no need for anybody else to compromise with. If you ask these people, most of them will tell you that they prefer living alone. I find this a fascinating example of human adaptability. A person in a loving relationship (which is more the cultural ideal) will typically die within a year of the mate’s death... yet people who got used to being alone as their adulthood progressed can successfully live alone for decades.

Another fascinating phenomenon of contemporary culture is the dysfunctional relationship between mother and child within an isolated nuclear family. In a clan, a baby, once it passes the newborn stage, is taken over by the young girls, who pass it around and play with it, and hand it back to the mother when it needs to be nursed. From toddlerhood on, the child is surrounded by playmates of all ages, and is never bored. Within a truly isolated nuclear family, particularly if there are no other siblings, the child fears being alone, and demands constant attention and stimulation from the mother (“Read to me! Again!”). The mother ends up frazzled to a crisp, which renders the child even more demanding, and so the spiral continues. Ideally, children would be in the center of the action, but wouldn’t be the center of attention, except when appropriate.


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